Kate and Karl greet me in the separate theatre entrance (with full disabled access to the theatres) and I’m taken up a couple of flights of stairs to the top floor. It’s their large rehearsal space which is edged with freestanding clothing rails stuffed with period costumes. There seem to be far too many for just one production but Kate assures me the show in progress “has a lot of costume changes”.
Kate and Karl both have such quiet charm as they explain the kind of shows they programme at Jack Studio Theatre:
“We’re diverse in our programming; looking after existing interests for classic work and revivals, and then also bringing in new and challenging pieces. Our Autumn season, for instance, begins with the rarely performed The Awakening, which is the debut production of DL Productions, and is a play which raises some difficult moral questions. This revival is followed by Toy Solider and Force of Trump, two new plays which take very different approaches to modern politics. But the season will also feature a reworking of The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay, with a new musical score, and conclude with our in-house Christmas production, The Hound of the Baskervilles. This season is typical of the programming we aim for at the Jack. We want to provide a space for new productions and companies to develop, with bold ideas, as well as providing more established pieces of theatre for our audience.”
The pair understand the need to think outside the box when presenting new and radical work. It is their traditional theatre that has enabled them to bring in something riskier. Once theatre goers have enjoyed one experience here, they are willing to come back to take a chance on new writing or theatre in development. For Kate and Karl gaining the confidence of their audiences has been of paramount importance and is key to the success of Jack studio Theatre. Kate explains further:
“Sometimes the plays are on the education syllabus and they attract a school audience. On the other hand our new writing festival, Write Now, will bring in a different audience interested in contemporary dramas. We also have a large core audience drawn from our local community, who see the majority of plays performed throughout the year. We’re particularly proud to have built up a supportive audience from the area of London in which the theatre is based.”
They are keen to work with those Companies whose approach is as imaginative as possible, and this leads to Karl mentioning how technically equipped they are: “We want to provide companies with a space in which they are able to be as creative as possible. We have full surround system, over 60 lights, projection facilities, and a drop down screen. The theatre layout is also flexible, allowing the audience to be on three sides, end on, or even in the round.” This does allow very much versatility.
They were awarded Best Venue Directors in the Fringe Report Awards for their work ‘in making The Brockley Jack Studio Theatre an outstanding venue for exciting theatre; and for encouraging the development of new talent.’ In addition to new writing festival WRITE NOW and several workshop programmes for writers, they are also home to film, Scratch Nights, and community arts events.
Scratch nights are bi-monthly. It’s a great try-out night with a mixture of spoken word, film, extracts from plays, poetry, and sketch comedy being performed. Artists are invited to submit work and put something in front of an audience who give feedback. There is a selection process for Scratch, run by the Scratch co-ordinator, Dilek Latif. Nevertheless, they still don’t know exactly what they are getting.
Karl says “… it’s a place where companies are not under pressure, a place to fail …” - he corrects himself - “perhaps there is no-such-thing as fail, it’s more about putting something in front of an audience for the first time.” Kate adds: “It’s eclectic, polished or raw. There is a great atmosphere; people are genuinely supportive as all the performances are at different stages of development. ”
The Jack Studio has been established for over 21 years. Kate and Karl have been in residence since 2005. They met while doing a show when they were both doing an MA. Both tall and slim they come across as truly committed professionals working to bring the highest standards possible.
They were winner of Most Welcoming Theatre (south east) in The Off West End Theatre Awards 2013 & 2015 & 2016 and it’s hard to imagine they ever have a cross word for anybody. Kate laughs: “If you’re passionate about your project; pushing the quality … there are heated debates between all of the team at some points, only because you care about what you’re doing”.
As Production Manager it is Karl’s job to keep checking it’s all going to happen. He talks about the process: “You have production meetings beforehand, see the model box and set drawings. We can help, knowing the facilities, and we go as far as we can to support their vision.”
On one occasion Karl worked with a company who wanted water to shower over a 15-foot-long table. This needed a water tank, piping, a trench for collecting the water and expert timing. Karl assured me “The company did a terrific job. It looked spectacular.” They have to assess risk, and take safety measures. Sometimes they have to draw the line. They decided to say no to a flaming trench down the front of the theatre.
Kate is also a theatre director, who has worked throughout London and the UK, staging several British premieres, as well as opera, revivals and community theatre events. She directs all of the Jack’s in-house productions. She explains that last year she had four projects, and this year probably three. When it comes to directing the Write Now Festival (which Kate instigated in 2010) it’s all about the process of working with the writer. There is a panel of industry experts who select the production, which Kate directs. This year’s winner was David Weir with Better Together, a play about the repercussions of the Scottish referendum on the life of one family.
Coming back to their programme I wonder whether they also stage theatre events such Opera and amateur theatre? Kate explains: “I’d love to do Opera, but nobody has come to us with an Opera yet, although we have programmed several musicals at the Jack. We’ve also had community theatre groups and local youth companies perform at the theatre. Our annual programme will always consist predominantly of professional theatre productions, but there’s also space for community work and involvement at the Jack.”
Versatile theatre professionals Kate and Karl are also designers so my last question is where they start with the process of design. They tell me that they both take a visual point for the play and ask themselves the question ‘What does the world of the play look like?”
Happily, here at the Jack Studio Theatre each play is bespoke and it provides an excellent platform for exciting new work and imaginative revivals.
Kate Bannister and Karl Swinyard were speaking with Heather Jeffery, Editor of London Pub Theatres
DID YOU KNOW ...
It is the only small independent theatre in the area.
Jack Studio Theatre was winner of Most Welcoming Theatre (south east) in The Off West End Theatre Awards 2013 & 2015 & 2016.
The theatre is one of 10 venues to be part of the BBC writers room 10 scheme 2014-15
They have had up to 500 people attending their community theatre and education syllabus theatre.
Kate Bannister and Karl Swinyard were awarded Best Venue Directors in the Fringe Report Awards for their work ‘in making The Brockley Jack Studio Theatre an outstanding venue for exciting theatre; and for encouraging the development of new talent.’
The Jack Studio productions have received well over 20 OFFIE nominations.
The Brockley Jack pub was a coaching inn from 19th hundred. There were stables for changing horses and at that time it was surrounded by miles of countryside.
It was called The Castle. Brockley Jack was a highwayman. He left a stuffed dummy of himself in a window while he went about his highway robbery.
Where the theatre is now used to be a function room for the hotel. The current rehearsal space was a breakfast room. The Theatre entrance was the entrance to the hotel.